Co-authored by John Sherwood, Ph.D., historian and Marcus Thompson, Naval History & Heritage Command.
Before World War II, most naval planners believed that a surface action between two fleets would last just minutes before one side or another was completely mauled by the effects of modern gun and torpedo fire. During the Battle of Java Sea, the Allied and Japanese fleets fought intermittently for seven hours before the Allied fleet was defeated—a testament to the determination and bravery of Sailors on both sides of the struggle.
The cruiser Houston (CA 30) engaged in some of the most intense gunfire duals. Its two forward 8-inch turrets fired 197 rounds. After the fight, gun liners were creeping out as much as an inch from the muzzles and gun casings were so hot that they could not be touched for hours. Fighting in 140-degree heat, Sailors who didn’t pass out during the battle found themselves standing in three inches of melted gun grease, sweat, and urine. In James D. Hornfischer’s book, Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors, Sailor James W. Huffman, the pointer in Turret Two, sat on a brass seat in in a corner of the gun house. It was his job to align the gun’s elevation and pull the turret’s trigger. The recoil of the triple eight inch rifles in the turret was a force he never before experienced. “You can’t imagine,” he said. “You lose track of every damn thing.”
“The heroism of the Houston’s gun crews notwithstanding, the ship’s overall gunnery performance during the battle was subpar.”
In all, 70 men worked in each of the Houston’s two functional main battery mounts during the battle. These gun crews did their jobs with timing and teamwork rivaling that of a professional football team. William M. Ingram, a Sailor who worked below decks, said that the ship was at general quarters so much that he kept a pillow and blanket in the starboard-side powder box to catch naps during lulls in the action. In Turret One, a ramming mechanism casualty compelled its crew to ram the breach by hand, keeping pace with Turret Two on all but a few salvoes. “This is a thing you couldn’t do in peacetime,” said LT Harold Hamlin, “No gun crew could do it, but they did.” After he observed one shell hit an enemy cruiser, Hamlin “whooped lustily,” and then informed the gun crews, shouting “We’ve just kicked the hell out of ten-gun Jap[enese] cruiser.” The gun crews let out a short cheer and went right back to work. Sailors on Houston learned the hard way that Japanese cruisers rarely succumbed to a single hit; in fact, all four that fought in the battle of Java Sea lived to fight another day.
The heroism of the Houston’s gun crews notwithstanding, the ship’s overall gunnery performance during the battle was subpar. Its aft 8-inch turret had been rendered in operative during an earlier action, reducing its firepower by 30%. Late in the battle, a frayed electrical lead in the forward main gun director led to problems with the ship’s gunnery deflection adjustments, and no further hits against Japanese surface combatants. As historian James D. Hornfischer noted, “To a ship that prided itself on gunnery, the failure was intolerable.” At Sunda Straits onMarch 1st, she redeemed herself. In that melee, Houston and HMAS Perth, assisted by “friendly fire” from the Japanese, managed to sink or damage more than a half a dozen Japanese ships before going down themselves.